St Stephens, Bournemouth, England

St Stephen's, Bournemouth, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Orinocco
Church: St Stephen's
Location: Bournemouth, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 October 2006, 10:45am

The building

Dating from 1881, this traditional church of light coloured stone is the work of the great 19th century Gothic Revival architect John Loughborough Pearson. Whilst drawing the plans for Truro Cathedral, Pearson is reported to have said that he wanted to design a church that would bring people to their knees. St Stephen's certainly does just that! The exterior, including a tower that was added later and still lacks its spire, is somewhat plain but strikingly beautiful nevertheless. The nave, with double aisles on either side, has a lovely high valted ceiling. The oak choir stalls feature carvings of various saints. There are side chapels on either side of the high altar, a Lady chapel to the left and a Calvary chapel to the right. The high altar is backed by a beautiful red and gold reredos, a triptych featuring Christ crucified as its centerpiece, with the Blessed Mother and St John, flanked by Elijah and Isaiah. The noted author John Betjeman called St Stephen's one of the loveliest churches in England, writing: "It is worth travelling 200 miles and being sick on the coach to have seen the inside of this ... lofty hall of stone vaulting providing view after view as you walk round it, each lovelier than the next and worthy of a vast cathedral."

The church

St Stephen's is one of three churches in the Bournemouth town centre parish. They conduct worship in the Anglo-Catholic tradition and sponsor a prayer, study and healing group. They also host a chapter of the Society of Mary.

The neighborhood

Bournemouth is a popular holiday resort on the south coast of England on the border between Hampshire and Dorset. Historically part of Hampshire, it was declared to be part of Dorset in 1974 and was granted the status of independent unitary authority in 1997. Once favoured by older folk and known as "God's waiting room," it has in recent years become more of a hangout for the younger set, with many pubs and nightclubs remaining open 24 hours each day. The church is near Bournemouth Town Hall and just behind the park near to the sea front.

The cast

The Rev. David Maddox, honorary assistant clergy, was the celebrant, and the Rev.Stuart Miller preached.

What was the name of the service?

High Mass

How full was the building?

Mostly full, except for the first three rows which were nearly empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady greeted us at the door and handed us the mass booklet, various leaflets, and an envelope of seeds. She apologised for the amount of different bits of paper and said that the seeds would be explained in the sermon. A sidesperson said hello to us as we were finding a seat. An old chap in the row in front turned round and said hello as we sat down.

Was your pew comfortable?

The seating was a wooden framed chair with a straw seat. Whilst not uncomfortable, it was not the most comfortable seat and would have been improved by a cushion.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet but with a murmur of chatter. The chatter provided a bit of atmosphere but wasn't loud enough to disturb those that just wanted to sit quietly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

New English Hymnal and the church's own mass booklet based on Common Worship, Order One in traditional language. The mass booklet also included an introduction to the church and explained the terms mass, eucharist and holy communion, and the meaning of incense. It also included a table of saints' days and moveable feasts.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. There was also a very good choir.

Did anything distract you?

The sun coming in and out of the clouds made the interior go light and dark every few minutes.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Bells and smells. There was a celebrant, deacon and subdeacon, supported by a gaggle of servers in cottas. The mass was celebrated eastward facing at the high altar. The gospel was chanted, although the eucharistic prayer wasn't.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

4 – We were required to sing Kumbaya several times.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

We all had to hold a seed in our hand and sing Kumbaya. The preacher then read out a story having to do with the Christian Aid ministry. Kumbaya again. Then another story and a final rendition of Kumbaya. We were asked to think about the potential of the people who were featured in the stories, and why so often it is the West that holds the seeds to that potential.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir were excellent and the sanctus made my spine tingle.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The number of bits of paper we were handed as we went through the door. There was the mass booklet, the monthly newsletter, a list of services for the following month and some sort of diocesan magazine. The magazine and newsletter could have been left for people to collect if they wanted to rather than handed to every person who walked through the door.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

A sidesman came up and asked us if we were in Bournemouth for the Conservative Party conference, which as a matter of fact we were. We chatted briefly about local politics. Another member of the congregation also came up and chatted with us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no coffee, but rather a choice of dry, medium or sweet sherry. There were also bowls of crisps and other snacks.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – This was a lovely church, very friendly and high church with no sign of Forward in Faith.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. The worship was awe-inspiring and very well done, and it was very friendly besides.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?


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